BY LINDA BAKER
“When I opened Paley’s in 1995, Northwest Portland was the ‘it’ place to be,” says chef Vitaly Paley, who recently opened Imperial, his second restaurant. “Then it was the East Side, and now it’s downtown. We all gravitate toward one another. The more the merrier.”
// Photo by Leah Nash
In 2010 Thomas Boyce, an acclaimed chef who worked at Spago in Beverly Hills for 13 years, decided to relocate to Portland, where he serves as chef at Bluehour in the Pearl District. Boyce, who has three young children, says he and his wife decided on Portland because of the city’s family-friendly lifestyle. “We thought of schools in Los Angeles and said, ‘It’s time for us to make a move.’” Portland’s lively and accessible restaurant scene was another attraction. Restaurants succeed in places that get national exposure, Boyce says, “and Portland is getting a lot of exposure.” Boyce says starting a new restaurant in Los Angeles costs at least $1.5 million. “In Portland I saw places where the space was $50,000 and the build out $50,000. That’s what excited me.”
Boyce is not alone in his enthusiasm for Portland restaurants. By almost any metric, the local dining scene is sizzling. New restaurants seem to open every month, and the city’s independent restaurants, from low end to high, are featured regularly on the pages of The New York Times and national food magazines such as Bon Appétit. Eighteen years after chefs such as Greg Higgins and Cory Schreiber helped pioneer a local farm-to-table cuisine, the industry is undergoing yet another wave of growth, characterized by relocation of top talent such as Boyce, a wave of second ventures by established local chefs and a shift to downtown as a culinary destination.
“In covering the national food scene, it’s gotten so I have to come to Portland four times a year just to keep up with what’s going on,” says Bon Appétit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton. In the magazine’s September issue, Knowlton ran two stories about Portland dining venues: one about the restaurant Luce, the other a guide to ethnic dining.
In a city still recovering from the recession, the local dining boom raises questions about how many restaurants Portland can actually sustain, and just who are all those people tucking into caprese salad and so many kinds of pork belly. But given the national spotlight, there is a bigger question: How did the Rose City become the leader of a nationwide culinary renaissance? Many cities on the West Coast — and in many parts of the country — have the same bounty of beer, wine, meat and produce, and, in the case of Seattle, more direct access to seafood.
If Boyce’s story is any indication, the answers revolve around a number of economic factors, ranging from cheap real estate that makes it easy for young chefs to open their own restaurants, to a host of urban amenities such as solid public schools that help attract and retain top talent. Culinary tourism, public policies supporting dense, walkable neighborhoods and favorable regulations, such as cheap liquor licenses, are also helping fuel the industry’s growth.